Natalie DenHartog started her Gophers career in risky fashion: making her coaches look bad.
The freshman, who had only cameoed as a pinch hitter or runner in four of the team’s first five games, smashed a home run to left center for three RBI in just her second official at bat, in a February win over then-No. 24 Notre Dame.
“We’re like, ‘Oh,’ ” coach Jamie Trachsel said. “ ‘That makes us look really like we could have made better decisions.’ ”
DenHartog started the next game and hit another two-run homer. Forty starts later, the freshman is tied for the team lead with 15 home runs, has a team-high 57 RBI and the second-best batting average at .404. The Hopkins product is a key cog for the No. 13 Gophers (37-10), heading into a three-game series that could decide the Big Ten title starting Friday at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium against No. 19 Northwestern.
Trachsel can only look back at her early season coaching misstep as a “head-scratcher,” adding she just thought DenHartog’s style wouldn’t match up well against those pitchers. And DenHartog doesn’t think that was a wrong move, considering the unknowns she presented as a first-year player. She pointed out that her first career at-bat was a strikeout, after a pitch beaned her in her first plate appearance.
Doubts have actually followed DenHartog most of her life. Would she fit in athletically at the college level? Would her unique high leg kick hitting hinder her? Could she even earn playing time as a freshman?
“It’s been a theme throughout my career,” she said. “I wasn’t always picked for the highest club teams or [haven’t] been the best player on every team or told that I was going to be good or make it. But I’ve always just come in and had something to prove, and I think this year, I had that same mind-set.”
It didn’t take long for Trachsel to realize DenHartog can “change the game with one swing,” especially against front-line pitching, with her unteachable natural power, physically strong stature and hard work ethic.
“She literally made it impossible not to continue giving her the opportunities,” Trachsel said. “Her consistency, moving her into the lineup, the pitching that we saw this whole year. Like … it’s a freshman, and she’s going to see this? And she just kept proving that she’s capable.”
The lifelong infielder — minus one foray as a center fielder in eighth grade — was also a January move to outfield after some injuries. The current designated player and left fielder struggled to learn on the fly with a packed travel and game schedule.
That dogged pursuit of excellence nearly put off MaKenna Partain, a junior who confided in Trachsel that she wasn’t sure how the two teammates would mesh.
Partain has an even-keeled personality. A contrast with DenHartog, who readily admits: “Never in my life have I ever walked away from a game and been completely satisfied with how I’ve done. It’s just not in me.”
But just like with the coaching staff, DenHartog eventually won Partain over, showing her that intense focus is what makes her successful. Now the best friends share weekly guacamole nights, and Partain attends DenHartog family dinners and weddings.
That bond manifests on the field, too. As the team’s leadoff hitter, Partain said anytime she reaches base, she’s sure DenHartog will bring her around to score.
DenHartog has carved out her place on the Gophers in a matter of months. Now she’ll lend that boldness to her team’s postseason push.
“She forced you to believe in her,” Trachsel said. “And then her confidence is unwavering because it’s truly built through work.”